Inside the Blue Whale

Rick Poynor

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11: Design and Class


Before I went to Bluewater, if someone had asked me what I thought about the idea of this gigantic new shopping mall in the suburbs of London, my answer would have spoken volumes to an impartial observer—a sociologist, say, or the kind of market researcher that a mall developer might commission—about my background, expectations, and prejudices. I hesitate to add “class” to the list only because in Britain the received wisdom, in the last ten or fifteen years, especially among the political classes, is that we are becoming a “classless” society. True to type, without having seen Bluewater, I would have condemned the ultimate—and quite probably the last—British shopping mall as a cynical, ecologically unsound cathedral of commerce; a vampire development sucking the life out of ailing high streets in nearby towns; a non-place as characterless and sterile as the contemporary airports it so much resembles.

A Day at the Bluewater Mall

Shopping malls, as the British social critic Paul Barker has observed, bring out the English vice of snobbery on both left and right. “The attacks on the shamelessly populist designs of the shopping malls follow in the footsteps of the earlier onslaughts on 1920s suburban semis or 1930s super-cinemas, on 1950s TV aerials or 1980s satellite dishes. The motto often seems to be: Find out what those people are doing, and tell them to stop it.”1 Ironically, though, what the middle classes find objectionable today, as a manifestation of vulgar working-class culture, they have a tendency to treat as “heritage” a generation later. “I await, with confidence,” concludes Barker, “the first conservation-listed shopping mall.”2

The criticisms of Bluewater, after its opening in March 1999, followed this all too predictable path. Blueprint magazine’s editor, for one, could not hide his disdain: “Many millions of people will visit Bluewater this year. They will laugh and shop and eat and say they like it. They will be greeted as ‘guests’ in the ‘welcome halls’ and ‘groom’ themselves in the loos and eat in the ‘break out areas.’ It would be patronizing to tell them to stop it.”3 But patronize Bluewater’s millions he does (not that many will have subscriptions to Blueprint). “What kind of people are so scared of rain or cold, so lazy that they can’t walk up hills, so frightened of alleyways or a darkening sky?” he demands to know. “Catering for them only reinforces their paranoia and threatens to destroy the rituals of real town centre shopping.”4 Another of Blueprint’s writers, finding a shop interior she can bring herself to recommend among the hundreds of retail units, scoffs at the shoppers’ unseemly behavior. “You almost feel that the whole shop could be slid out of its hole and driven away if the company ever changed its mind about Bluewater. Which given that the clientele have taken to standing and clapping every time the drawbridge is opened or closed, might not be a bad idea.”5

The tone of these dismissals made me more intrigued by Bluewater than I might otherwise have been. I found myself wanting to test my own preconceptions with a visit. These writers sound determined not to be impressed, as a matter of principle, and the intellectual position behind their criticisms—other than snobbery—is unclear. What are these cherishable rituals of town center shopping? What’s so wrong with clapping if you enjoy a special effect? The writer takes Bluewater’s shop designs to task for not being adventurous enough, but seems to regard the fashion shop she does admire as being almost too good for its non-metropolitan clientele, who fail to respond to its design values with the right degree of sophistication and restraint.

Bluewater is eighteen miles east of central London, a mile or so from the River Thames, in a place called Greenhithe in the county of Kent. Among Bluewater visitors, I belong to an underclass. The mall, a destination conceived for drivers, like all such developments, has 13,000 parking spaces, but I don’t drive a car (or want one). I take the forty-five-minute train journey from London to a tiny station where the railway signs now say “Greenhithe for Bluewater.” It’s Friday morning and a regular shuttle bus transports me and a few other carless shoppers—mainly young women—to the nearby mall.

The despoiler of high streets lies, half-hidden, in a reclaimed quarry surrounded by chalk cliffs. From the outside, Bluewater is a jumble of gray forms, sprawling low and flat in the landscape, largely undistinguished except for the angled ventilation cones on its roof, shaped like Kent’s oast houses, which give it the look of an aerial tracking station. I wander along the side, cross the boardwalk over a lake (one of seven), and enter the Wintergarden, a glass and steel canopy inspired, we’re told, by the Palm House at Kew, and said to be the largest greenhouse built in Britain in the 20th century. Pathways meander between the trees and restaurant seating areas. It’s like being in the atrium of a tropical hotel.

The two-story building’s plan is triangular. Each side is a distinct zone with its own theme, design style, atmosphere, and type of store. The Wintergarden leads to the Rose Gallery (typical high street shops), and depending on which way you turn, this eventually takes you to the Guildhall (glitzy fashion labels, designer homewares) or the longer, gently curved Thames Walk (toys, sports, games, street fashion). These sectors also have their own recreational spaces and eating areas, which spring from the sides of the triangle. A shop-lined passage, modeled on London’s Burlington Arcade, connects the Guildhall to the Village, and the Thames Walk is served by the livelier, club-like Water Circus. At each corner of the triangle there is a domed entrance, also themed, to one of Bluewater’s three “anchor” stores—John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, and House of Fraser—the dependable retailers of middle-class Britain.

Early research by Lend Lease, the Australian owners of Bluewater, showed that 9 million people live within an hour’s drive of the site, and they are among Britain’s wealthiest consumers, with an annual expenditure 32 percent higher than the national average. Four out of five fall into the A, B, or C socioeconomic groups used by marketers. More than 72 percent of the homes in this region are owner-occupied and have access to a car.6 Further research, in the form of a questionnaire, led to the division of this catchment into seven “clusters,” accounting for almost five million people. These categories were given names to reflect their lifestyle characteristics. Highest in spending power, and therefore of greatest interest to Bluewater’s developers, were the “County Classics” (wealthy, usually married, having wide interests and concerned with home, entertaining, family, and quality); the “Club Executives” (successful, married, quality-conscious, liking to be in control and prepared to pay extra for convenience); and the “Young Fashionables” (single, in their early twenties, image-conscious, brand-oriented, active).

All three groups preferred to do “serious” shopping in central London. To convince them to choose Bluewater, the mall would have to match the experience, quality, and range of retailing in London’s smartest shopping areas. The mall visionaries pursued this goal with a vengeance, attracting seventy-two stores from Covent Garden and fifty-eight from King’s Road, many of them agreeing to venture out of London for the first time. Camper, the Spanish shoe company, had just a handful of stores in some of the capital’s snootiest addresses (Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, and Bond Street). Others prepared to dip their toes into Bluewater included Calvin Klein, Diesel, French Connection, and Muji, the “no brand” minimalist home store. Three hundred and twenty shops now occupy 1.6 million square feet of retailing space.

Bluewater promised these status-conscious outfits that they would rub shoulders with similar establishments. It painted a seductive picture of a “retail experience” that went far beyond the usual perceptions of even the most successful British malls. Special attention would be paid to “sensory factors” such as surfaces, materials, and air quality. Creating a sense of welcome was vital. The need for safety, expressed by many potential customers during research, would be a matter of overriding concern realized in every design detail. The restrooms, often hidden away down long corridors, would be situated in the welcome halls, which customers would enter directly from the adjacent garages, and these halls would be like hotel lobbies, with a concierge on hand to help guests, and coffee bars, where people could pause to get their bearings.

The architect charged with developing these concepts is an American, Eric Kuhne.7 Even critics who abhor Bluewater gush with enthusiasm at his “charm,” “erudition,” “educated manner,” and skills as a speaker. Kuhne visualizes the project in the grandest of terms. “We’ve really designed a city rather than a retail destination,” he says.8

This is fighting talk to those who take the view that the last word to use to describe a place like Bluewater is “civic.” But if one of the things we value in real outdoor city spaces is the possibility for people to meet, converse, interact, pass the time, and enjoy a shared public life, then Bluewater offers pleasures and satisfactions that the mall’s more hostile commentators have been reluctant to concede. For a commercial space, it’s prodigiously supplied with non-paying seats not connected to cafés, many of them comfortable leather armchairs. Soon after I arrive, I pass three women in their sixties, one wearing a knee bandage, talking about a friend’s swollen ankles. It’s unlikely they belong to Bluewater’s favored socio-economic clusters, and they don’t seem to have bought much. This is not a place you pass through, however, on the way to somewhere else, so they probably came on the bus just to be here with their friends and relax. I’m struck by how few people carry shopping bags, (though the day is still young). Bluewater has forty or more places to eat, from upmarket French bistros to sushi-on-a-conveyor-belt bars, but at lunch time, I notice a young woman settle down in a leather chair, place her lunch box on a side table, and unwrap a homemade sandwich.

Of course, all this attention to sensory factors and quality of experience is not motivated by altruism. Bluewater is a machine for making money, and these are the lubricants that increase its efficiency. The parkland outside is there to help visitors “recharge their batteries,” explains the celebratory Bluewater book (a sign in itself of the mall’s ambition). The unstated hope is clearly that, rather than flopping into the car and driving home, the recharged shopper will return to the aisles with a spring in her stride and credit cards at the ready. The book half-expects our disapproval and makes a brief attempt to brush it off: “To say, as some inevitably would, that there was something underhand about this would be tantamount to writing off every piece of design-for-profit that had ever been built or produced. The environments were intended to seduce, and in that way, Bluewater was no different from a designer dress or a piece of exclusive furniture.”9 This is a painfully thin defense of consumerism, but it has a point. If the aim is to sell good design, and this is acceptable in luxury design shops in London, aimed at the trendy, loft-dwelling classes, why is it unacceptable (“sinister” according to Blueprint) for such things to be made available to a much wider public outside London, in the suburbs?

Class may not be a word that British politicians like to use these days—it suggests inequality and unresolved struggle—but it remains a significant factor in British society. Ordinary people clearly think so. A Mori survey in 1991 showed that nearly four in five believe that the country “has too many barriers based on social class.” A Gallup poll in 1995 indicated that 85 percent subscribe to the existence of an underclass.10 Britain’s classless society is a myth, argues a widely acclaimed indictment of our social structure by political journalists Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard. We might not like to admit it, but we are all experts at reading the signals and giveaways of class. “Accents, houses, cars, schools, sports, food, fashion, drink, smoking, supermarkets, soap operas, holiday destinations, even training shoes: virtually everything in life is graded with subtle or unsubtle class tags attached,” write Adonis and Pollard.11 But these signals are becoming increasingly scrambled. You can buy cappuccinos as well as baked beans on toast in a motorway service station. Social mobility abounds and almost everyone is better off today, even if the gap between the top and the bottom of the income scale grows apace. As the authors explain, “most of the ‘working class’—meaning manual workers—leads what even a generation ago would have been considered a middle-class consumer lifestyle.”12

Bluewater shows just how far this process has come. It offers an experience that many of its visitors would not, or could not easily have had before it arrived in their midst. It recognizes the consumer behavior of different social classes within its many zones, but this multiplicity, the sense of things to discover, encourages people to wander and explore, and they do. Drinking coffee in the Mise en Place café in the Village—its dark wood cabinet windows clearly conceived with the “County Classics” in mind—I watch a couple arrive with their daughter, no older than four. The man has cropped hair, tattooed biceps, a beer belly, combat trousers, and boots. His keys hang from a belt loop. They have come to take the little girl to a film. She is bored, restless, and has to be encouraged into an armchair. “You want to go the pictures?” the man says gently. “Well, sit down.” He pushes the chair towards the table. He is not entirely at ease, and you can tell this isn’t the kind of place he would usually frequent. “There are rules and regulations,” he tells the little girl.

Yet Bluewater aspires to be something greater than a social melting pot in which all visitors are notionally equal in the sight of the pound. In Kuhne’s imagination, it is a “city,” and this is not only a matter of size and services, although a poster really does boast that Bluewater is “Twice the size of Bath city centre”—that is, equal to one of our most beautiful, historic cities, and even bigger. In its attempt to relate itself to its environs, in its faux monuments and its elaborate literary program, Bluewater strives to endow itself with nothing less than the trappings of civic meaning, as though these ordinarily gradual accretions to a city’s fabric, the statues and inscriptions, could be willed into existence and achieve gravitas overnight.

Do visitors pay any attention to these decorations and texts? I saw no evidence that they do. The only person pausing to study the sculptures or read the epigrams was me. In the upper mall of the Thames Walk, verses in four-foot-high capitals about Old Father Thames rolling along to the mighty sea form a frieze that runs the length of the mall. It’s impossible to read at a glance and few will walk the entire length for this purpose. In the Rose Gallery, lines waxing lyrical on creamy, dreamy roses, fresh as morning’s birth, are plonked on an I-beam under a monotonous trellis of artificial roses—easily the most impoverished of Bluewater’s displays. At every turn archways and entablatures are adorned with words by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Laurie Lee, and other Kent writers. The Roman lettering is obviously intended to be monumental, but it is invariably overpowered by the loud typography and jangling colors of the shopfronts, an unwitting reminder of the triumph, everywhere, of commercial communication as the dominant form of public address. The hollowness of the literary sentiments, in this context, is underlined by the shoddiness of the appliqué lettering, which awkwardly straddles the cracks between the stone blocks.

In the Guildhall, Britain’s 106 guilds—loriners, shipwrights, clerks, and tallow chandlers, et al.—are represented by sculptures in niches. Again, the quality of craft and manufacture of these lumpish figures is poor. They look like relief carvings, but there are empty spaces behind them so you can see they are just flimsy moldings. Far from dignifying visual art as a source of higher meaning, these devices reduce it to the level of visual Muzak, shallow and irrelevant. Any of the stores will themselves offer finer examples of design and workmanship.

This attempt to dress up the commercial machinery of Bluewater in a layer of culture and “class” is patrician and patronizing. It tries to pretend the mall is something other than it is, and then having taken the cultural path, it loses its nerve, rather than commissioning real artists to create unexpected and challenging experiences. Culture is treated as a Linus blanket, to coddle the visitor, and the arts are demoted to empty decor. I doubt consumers are taken in by these cultural pretensions, though. They almost certainly don’t care. While the art might contribute vaguely to the ambience, the primary features of the interior design—the use of timber, limestone and leather, the ornamental balustrades, the lamps like harbor buoys, the “sails” hanging in the Thames Walk—carry more weight.

I came to Bluewater expecting to despise it. What I discovered is that while you can hate the idea of Bluewater, it’s harder to hate the experience itself. It was easy to spend time there. Five hours passed quickly. The place was kind to the senses, unexpectedly relaxing, and I could have stayed longer. I didn’t feel oppressed. If I lived closer, I would probably go again. Maybe this is its cleverness: it lulls and anaesthetizes.

As Bluewater’s critics inadvertently revealed, once the routine arguments about the economic and environmental damage caused by this development have been stated, a convincing case against the place is hard to make—a case that would be persuasive to someone clutching bags of shopping after an enjoyable afternoon at the mall. What would you say? How would you convince the shopper that he is wrong? For the cultural critic Bryan Appleyard, struggling with this dilemma, Bluewater encapsulates a moment of transition to what he calls a “new order.” Appleyard rehearses the arguments of the traditionally-educated person—someone like himself—with a conception of human progress, values, and ethics derived from Greco-Christian-Renaissance-Enlightenment culture. “I could easily imagine the newspaper columns I could write deriding this place,” he notes. “Its architecture, although fine and lovely, is depraved. The staff are robots. It pollutes. It glorifies the empty pleasures of consumption. Its superfluity is trivial. . . . Its artificiality suppresses seriousness and depth.”13 And yet, he concludes, he could not write such a column because his response is much less simple than that.

Right now, as I discovered, the arguments for and against Bluewater are both true. But when we complete the transition to the new order of abundance it represents, suggests Appleyard, the case against it will cease to make sense. As he notes, most of our values were formed by historical conditions of scarcity. The new conditions of plenty make those values not just redundant, but also incomprehensible to most. For many visitors, Bluewater is as luxurious as it gets, spectacular local evidence that prosperity is growing and 21st-century living is good. So, once again, as the shopper loads his bounty into the car—what exactly is our objection? Appleyard puts it this way: “If 2,500 years of intellectual and physical struggle were not meant to achieve this, what were they meant to achieve?”14

But again, this is too simple. The struggle isn’t over. Bluewater, despite its police station, multiplex cinema, and bus garage, is not a town. It’s a controlled, private space. The lower-class Ds and Es—to use the marketing lingo—can turn up if they like, but with little cash in their pockets and few aspirations to upward mobility, they are not part of the plan, and they had better not step out of line. No drunks and crazy people here, thank you. No beggars. No street musicians. No gangs. No protesters. No disorderliness of any kind. No wonder we fall for Bluewater. It’s secure, tidy, a Pleasantville vision of Utopia—or rather, it’s a vision of Utopia for some. To let yourself be lulled by it is to collude with the politicians’ rhetoric of classlessness, to forget the ideal of social justice, to pretend that the old class tensions between the haves and the have-nots no longer exist in Britain, and, having blanked them out of the scene, to abandon the neediest people in society to the town centers we no longer care to visit.

It may be that no more malls will be built in Britain. Many of the public say they prefer them, but Government policy has changed and planning permission is being withheld.15 Perhaps the country will set about regenerating its high streets at last. Many are degraded spaces. Blighted by long-term neglect, ravaged by the car, they offer little to compete with the safe, weather-free, indoor cornucopia of places like Bluewater. But there is minimal evidence to suggest that we have the political determination, the public vision, or the public money to reinvent the civic and to appropriate retail design’s understanding of sensory experience for the noncommercial public realm. Our vehicles have helped to corrode our townscape; so doing further damage, we drive somewhere else, where the cars are at least kept at the door. If declining town centers are to reawaken, it will be by embracing the new order and becoming surrogate malls.

1 Paul Barker, “Malls Are Wonderful,” Independent on Sunday, October 28, 1998, 9.

2 Ibid, 12.

3 Marcus Field, “Tragedy in the Chalk Pit,” Blueprint, no. 161 (May 1999): 45.

4 Ibid.

5 Fiona Rattray, “Bluewater or Ditch-water?” Blueprint, no. 161 (May 1999): 47.

6 Research quoted in Vision to Reality (London: Lend Lease, 1999), 60.

7 Kuhne was given the title “concept designer.” He had never designed a shopping mall before. His practice, Eric Kuhne & Associates, is known for parks and civic spaces. The project architect, supporting and developing the design process, was Benoy.

8 Field, 45.

9 Vision to Reality, 73.

10 Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society (London: Penguin, 1998), 4.

11 Ibid, 10.

12 Ibid.

13 Bryan Appleyard, “The Age of Plenty,” Prospect, no. 41 (May 1999): 46.

14 Ibid.

15 Dan Roberts, “Shoppers Prefer Out-of-Town Sites,” in Daily Telegraph, November 19, 1998 (source: Electronic Telegraph). Research by the British Council of Shopping Centres found that four of the top five shopping destinations were away from traditional shopping areas. Preferred sites were the Metro Centre, Gateshead; Lakeside, Essex; Meadowhall, Sheffield; and Merry Hill, West Midlands.

Rick Poynor writes about design, media, and the visual arts for many publications. He is the author of several books, including Design without Boundaries: Visual Communication in Transition.